Can video games be considered high art? This is a topic which has been debated for years, especially in the current generation. The medium has evolved over the years from a plumber rescuing princesses from gorillas, as well as Sega taking cheap shots at Super Nintendo with their "Blast Processing", to now telling stories that would rival even those from Hollywood. The medium has been continually breaking new ground, leading to cinematic quality tales such as Metal Gear Solid and Half Life, but could they be seen as art?
In my opinion, yes they can. If someone were to ask me why, I would immediately refer them to That Game Company’s visually poetic Journey, or to 2K Games’ haunting industrial commentary BioShock. There are many more I may possibly be forgetting, but those are what would immediately come to mind, and that list has already started growing as of recent.
Following up their success from the Uncharted trilogy on PlayStation 3, Sony developer Naughty Dog now takes themselves down new, haunting roads in complete contrast to Uncharted. The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic tale that combines the best of survival horror gameplay, and the richness of a fully developed motion picture, was arguably the most hotly anticipated game of the year. Critics have obviously been showering it with immense praise and perfect scores, but what do I think about it? Does it rank highly with Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted 2? In my opinion, not only do I think it surpasses Uncharted 2 (Which is one of my favorite games of all time), I’m seriously thinking endlessly about whether or not I’d consider it the greatest game I’ve ever played. That may sound hyperbolic, but when you’ve just finished a game this poignant, beautiful, terrifying, emotional, and all around powerful, you have reason to be so ecstatic.
The Last of Us takes place 20 years after a global pandemic, where humanity has been stricken by an outbreak of cordyceps, which ravages the brain of the host and mutates them into infected prowlers. Joel, a man now making his living as a smuggler, is given the task of escorting a young girl named Ellie out of the city, and across the country to a resistance stronghold. I can’t say anything else without giving too much of the plot away, but I will say that what follows is a harrowing tale of humanity that takes numerous unforeseeable twists and turns.
I’m much more of a FILM critic, so that’s where I may skewer towards, but the gameplay is worth talking about, as it is half of the immersion of the story, and moves it along terrifically. Every move and action serves to tell a story. Notes from survivors who wrote to their families and friends can be collected, messages on walls can be gazed at, and even the scattered furniture in rooms work to establish the isolation. The game is linear, but still gives you plenty of opportunities to explore your surroundings. You’ll have to conserve ammunition and supplies, both of which are scarce in this world, and you’ll even have to consider stealth. There are parts with quite the numbers of enemies which you could dispatch of if you’re crafty enough, but at times, you have to consider avoiding direct contact altogether, attacking them silently from behind, or just sneak around them without fighting at all.
In contrast to Uncharted, where Nathan Drake would make a snarky comment after defeating his enemies, the violence in The Last of Us is much more brutal and meaningful. You do whatever is necessary to survive, but most of the time, it’s better to not engage in contact at all. It’s much like Metal Gear Solid, by which it encourages sneaking over fighting. This is especially true for certain forms of infected, which include Clickers, a species so deformed and blinded from the infection that they find their prey by using sonar abilities similar to bats. These guys killed me A LOT. You have to find creative ways out of the mess, and the mechanics give you just the fluidity and freedom of choice necessary.
In the case of presentation, there is a lot to talk about. Graphically, this is one of the best looking games ever created. Every frame is like a work of art, with the photography suitably showing the bleak and cold nature of this world, and in a way that also recalls the style of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The abandoned homes, hotels, skyscrapers, and even hospitals work to enhance the feeling of isolation. The outlands beyond the quarantine zones are rapidly being reclaimed by nature, with plant life overtaking buildings, and water flooding the streets. Even animal life moves freely about, with one scene where Ellie comes in contact with a giraffe being especially powerful. It is gorgeous imagery from beginning to end.
Another stark contrast to Uncharted is the story, as Uncharted mainly took inspiration from old school action films, while The Last of Us is anti-action. You can detect multiple influences that Naughty Dog took inspiration from, but perhaps the most common of which would be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The game is not so much interested in how the infection starts as it is with what it should be focusing on: the journey of these two lead characters. Along the way, they meet new allies, come across dangerous forces, and have to use all of their wits to hold out against these dangers, all done in an episodic approach. It isn’t constrained by a three act structure, it doesn’t take any cheap shots, the characters are never black and white, and the tone is consistent from start to finish. Even the ending (without giving too much away) is not a heartwarming one. All of the characters are simply trying to survive, doing what they think is right, and even the more “evil” characters are trying to make it by any means necessary, so it feels believable. It doesn’t need the typical Hollywood traditions, and it doesn’t have to go for any unnecessary shots. It’s just life, which is all it needs to be.
Speaking of the main characters, Joel and Ellie are among the greatest video game characters of all time, particularly Ellie. They are perfectly developed, perfectly voiced by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, and rendered with some of the best motion capture I’ve ever seen. On their own, they are great, but together, they play off of each other so flawlessly. Whereas Joel led an ordinary life in the world that you and I know now, and had to adapt to the harsh new world that is, Ellie was born into this world. She’s not necessarily innocent, but she doesn’t know any better. The conversations she has with Joel about the old world, which she knows very little about, are some of the most meaningful in the game. Even though this time has taken a toll on her, she still does act like a believable child. She doesn’t even know what an ice cream truck is, and she also shows curiosity towards things like a poster for a movie Joel got dragged to see before the outbreak (which is a nice jab at the Twilight craze). She’s also responsible for some of the game’s fleeting comic relief, such as when she reads from a joke book. They’ve each suffered their loss of people they loved the most, and what comes forth between them is a strong bond akin to a father/daughter. Joel would fight tirelessly to keep Ellie safe, and Ellie would adapt to every new situation to help Joel. It’s not always easy between them, but in the end, it shows how much they need each other to survive. This also brings a bittersweet feeling to the end of the game. I think it's so perfect that I don't think a sequel is necessary, but at the same time, I don't want to leave these guys. I want to see how the rest of their lives turn out. I guess that's the best possible compliment you could give a character. That you're so invested in them, you're not ready to say goodbye. That is an impressive feat.
One unlikely element that also stands out is the sound. It is of my opinion that this is the best sound design ever accomplished in a video game. Similar to BioShock, which creatively used sound to send chills down the player’s spine, The Last of Us effectively uses the tools at their disposal to heighten the tension and further establish the isolation. However, unlike BioShock, you’ll hear no deranged musicians blaring “Waltz of the Flowers” over the speakers. The dripping of water and the rustling of trees enhance the ambiance of the world, while the conversations of enemy gangs and the horrifying Clicker calls immediately put you on your toes and running for cover.
Also in contrast to Uncharted is the game’s music. Whereas Greg Edmonson channeled James Horner with bold action and exotic rhythms, Gustavo Santaolalla makes it his goal to focus on the emotion of each scene, often summing it up with poignant use of the acoustic guitar. It doesn’t make a grand show of itself, and it doesn’t overplay itself. It works to move the story along, and still manages to work some memorability into the notes. It’s easily the best score that Santaolalla’s ever written, and if that weren’t enough, after this game, you may never listen to Hank Williams the same way again.
All in all, every word of praise this game receives is richly deserved. Rarely do I use this word, but this game really is a masterpiece. It’s an immersing, tangible, raw, and brutal examination of character and humanity, building emotion off of the bond between the two leads, and works to tell a story with every aspect at its disposal. In an age where Hollywood is in a bit of a slump for compelling, original stories, video games are quickly becoming a refreshing alternative with their interactivity. Games like this are what truly show you why people are so passionate about the medium, and why they argue that they can be high art. Choose whatever side you wish, because this is a debate that won’t soon be going away, especially as we get more examples like this game. With the PlayStation 4 set to release in a few months, The Last of Us is a fitting and excellent addition to a great age of gaming. It’s a survival classic…
***** / *****